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The Last Ship – Review

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Lately it seems that before you can even pull a room temperature pint, there’s another “working class” British musical rolling into town. Small industrial towns (having seen better days) apparently are where hardscrabble dancers and designers are born. Perhaps Broadway has become the yin to television’s posh yang of Downton Abbey and Selfridges. No one would blame you for taking one and only one look at the press releases for Sting’s The Last Ship. Enough already! But I assure you, you would regret that decision. The Last Ship is how you remember (false memory or not) musicals to be. It is moving and soaring, with dance and music that serves the story.

It is a recognizable story, one perhaps with its roots in earlier theatre – edgy son, disappointed father, abandoned love and child, redemption. There is nothing particular unusual or revelatory about the book (John Logan and Brian Yorkey) it’s simply solid and moving. It is the firm foundation for what is ostensibly a light opera. A small town has lost its only industry (ship building,) out of work and hope the men have a chance to build one last ship together. But of course it is the love story buried in the welding and winching that will break your heart. The music and lyrics (Sting) are rich, understandable and at times quite stirring. The orchestration (Rob Mathes) fills the theatre and at times transforms what very well could be considered pub music into a score. While the direction (Joe Mantello) of this large cast is superb, it is the choreography (Steven Hoggett) that brings The Last Ship to an entirely new level.

The movements are natural yet entirely rhythmic throughout the production. Set changes become dance, and the dances are so deceptively simple they are just life. Many in the large chorus are hefty blokes and to watch them move is a delight. The movement/dance suits the characters and the story and seems to be continuously in play. When the characters dance it is merely an extension of their expression. This naturalism is how they sing as well.

Nobody bursts into a number in The Last Ship. All the singing comes organically from dialogue. The character Jackie White (Jimmy Nail) actually talk/sings (a la Rex Harrison) his way through solos until joined by a chorus. It is a very effective use of his rich baritone and his role as the foreman. Gideon, the wayward son is played by two actors, the younger (Collin Kelly-Soredelet) also playing the son of Meg (Rachel Tucker.) Sound confusing? It’s not. The elder Gideon (Michael Esper) is a strong presence and it’s always clear who is who. The women are splendid but this really is a men’s show. One man practically steals it in the role of Father O’Brien (Fred Applegate.) It’s a delicious role and storyline and Mr. Applegate is just delightful.

The set (David Zin) is stark, clever, effective and serves the actors and the story. There is also some very clever lighting (Christopher Akerlind) that works as additional set. If there is any flaw at all in this production it is one song that doesn’t quite belong. I believe it’s a recycled Top 40 (of Sting’s) and I leave it to you to discover it. To find it is tantamount to finding a tiny crack in a masterpiece; it makes you appreciate the mastery even more.

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2014 in Theatre

 

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Peter And The Starcatcher – Review

Peter and the Starcatcher is the most innovative, rollicking, sophisticated, silly, magnificent new show to come along in a very long time.  A musical derivation of Peter Pan, this show simply soars.  This is not a musical in the traditional sense.  At most there are four songs, or songletttes.  However, it is the best orchestrated show you may ever see.  Musical punctuation is used at every turn and to great effect.

Before the house lights dim, the audience is tipped off to the treat in store.  The proscenium arch of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre is subtly, yet garishly festooned for the show.  Subtle, because the festooning is styled to blend into the theatre’s decor.  Garish, well because it is.  There are two musicians positioned in the boxes (left and right.) They are surrounded by percussion instruments of every variety (on the right) and keyboard, woodwind and magic soundboard (on the left.)  Yes, there are only two musicians, but they are live and in full view!  The other technical anomaly in play is the extremely judicious use of amplification. It is initially jarring, but the audience can in fact identify who is speaking by following the sound emanating from an actor’s mouth.

The play, by Rick Elice, is smart and funny and simply pun-tastic.  The dialogue is rapid paced and plentiful.  And smart.  Directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, with movement by Steven Hoggett, the wonderful cast is in essence a dance ensemble.  The choreography of the show is simply staggering.  There are no dance numbers.  (A kick line performed by a shabby group of men dressed as mermaids, doesn’t count does it?)  The movement in this show creates a magical world.  Often with little more than a piece of string, artistic lighting (Jeff Croiter) and sound (Wayne Barker,) ideas become realized.  Look it’s a ship, it’s a mirror, it’s a cabin, it’s a crocodile.

Despite it’s brilliance in design, this show would falter without a first-rate cast.  The show teeters between slapstick and sincerity (in the best of ways) and in lesser hands, we would not see the extremes or worse, we would only see one extreme.  This cast works as a seasoned ensemble.  In a show as physical as this, a less unified cast could result in some injuries.  While without this ensemble, there might not be this show; there are two actors who must be singled out.  Celia Keenan-Bolger, who tore up the stage in City Center Encores! Merrily We Roll Along, is the glue that is Molly.  Playing a 13-year-old bright feminist child with a good sense of humor (think Hermione Granger with a playful side) Ms. Keenan-Bolger has us in the palm of her diminutive hand.  She stands her own even against the over-the-top (in the best of ways) Christian Borle as Black Stache.  Mr. Borle’s performance can best be described by picturing a reality in which Ray Bolger and a young Tim Curry could create a biological child together.  There are several extraordinary performances in this cast, but the roles of Molly and Black Stache are large and demanding and are served wonderfully by Mr. Borle and Ms. Keenan-Bolger.

This production is not cheap.  It takes money to make something look plausibly shabby.  But it is not excessive or lavish.  There are no hydraulics or pulleys, yet there is plenty of flying.  It takes buckets of creativity to do more with less than it does to throw money at things.  Until I saw this show, it did not occur to me that you could simulate a bird flying away with four rubber gloves.  I never would have imagined that simple pennants, presumably made of discarded bed sheets, could become a crocodile.  There are dozens of these tiny moments that came from enormous amounts of creativity.  These miniature moments, collectively add up to a Faberge Egg of theatre.  While this is not a children’s show per se, seeing it would be a gift to any child.  In a world where so much is made of so little, to see what little can be made with so much is a gift.

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2012 in Theatre

 

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